When work began on the names, Sydney G. James saw the toll that the process was taking on her team of assistants.
“I looked up at them and saw their faces and said, ‘Why don’t you finish whatever you all are doing and come down,’ ” says the Detroit artist, who created a new, 3,500 square-feet mural on the side of a Highland Park art gallery that she co-owns.
The person depicted on the wall is Malice Green, the unarmed African American man who was beaten to death by two Detroit police officers in 1992.
But the message of this vivid, relevant piece of public art is the scroll of paper that Green holds in his hands – a listing of names of Black men and women who have died from police brutality or racism.
James originally wanted to include all the names dating to 1979, the year she was born. But that would have been too, too many, even for a wall she estimates is 30 feet or more high.
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“Even from now dating back to 2014 is well over a thousand names,” she says. “So now I know all the names won’t be included. We’ll do our best. But it’s a lot. It’s a lot.”
James has won acclaim as an emerging artist who is unafraid to tackle difficult, necessary themes in her work. One of her best-known murals, “Black List” in Eastern Market, is a portrait of an African American woman holding a piece of paper bearing these words by Detroit poet Scheherazade Washington Parrish: “The Definitive List of Everything That Will Keep You Safe As A Black Woman Being In America.”
The rest of the sheet is empty.
Her latest mural, which she completed Thursday, comes after massive protests against systemic racism and the violent policing of Black Americans, triggered by the death of George Floyd and the horrifying video of a Minneapolis police officer putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes.
What happened to Floyd has become a catalyst for a national conversation about truths that have existed for years and decades and centuries.
While there is hope for transformative change resulting from this moment, the mural speaks to the grief and outrage at so many lives lost.
“I told someone at the beginning of this, I was like, this is going to be the most beautiful, ugly thing that I’ve ever painted, and that’s exactly what it is. The further along we go with it, the more painful it is to do,” says James, speaking early last week. “Today was a day full of tears, hurt, and we only scratched the surface of the names.”
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James, 40, born and raised in Detroit, was just 13 when Malice Green died in 1992, the same year that four Los Angeles cops were acquitted of the vicious beating of Rodney King – another awful moment caught on camera. Five days of riots erupted in L.A. in response to another blind eye turned to what was there for the world to see.
More: 25 years ago, Malice Green became the face of police brutality in Detroit
On the 25th anniversary of Green’s death, the Free Press took an in-depth look at the incident and the racial divisions exposed by the region’s reactions to the search for justice.
“A pair of plainclothes Detroit police officers approached Malice Green in front of a known drug house on the city’s west side,” the story recounted. “When Green reportedly refused to drop what he was holding in his clinched hand, the beating began. At least one of the officers used his heavy steel flashlight to pound Green and more cops arrived.”
By the time an ambulance took Green to Detroit Receiving Hospital, he was dead.
The two officers, Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn, were convicted of second-degree murder and went to prison. After a successful appeal, they were both convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Five days after Green’s death, Detroit artist Bennie White Jr. Ethiopia Israel painted a mural on a storefront at West Warren Avenue. Initially, he just wanted to go to the site where Green had died. Then he saw Green’s blood in the street, along with a red rose left at the spot, and decided to preserve G…
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